Raheem Sterling & The Evaluation of Wingers

Wingers: managers love them, pundits love them, we love them.

Wingers have evolved from cross-launching specialists that weren’t fully involved in the game to the most dynamic players on the pitch. Modern day wingers run, shoot, pass, cross, and dribble at neck breaking pace and do it at a high level. They pushed out the classic ten and made a new breed of footballer we love.

Cristiano Ronaldo is at times the complete football machine, Arjen Robben’s darting runs through the middle makes the heart stop, Eden Hazard was the best player in the EPL, and even Lionel Messi is rekindling his winger flame while letting Luis Suarez work inside. The best offensive players at big clubs are most often the wingers. And that’s why we’re enamored with them.

Yet, they’re typically hard to value, especially if they’re not the Ronaldo/Robben/Messi spear point goal machine. It’s easy to value the direct winger. They take the ball and find ways to put it in the back of the net. It’s not about how often they fail, but if they find a way to score 20 or so goals they’re a success. These players are match winners on their own. Yet their individualistic tendencies can also be harmful; just ask Gareth Bale.

Regardless, their qualities shine through more often then not. They’re the kind of player that wows us. But some wingers, like Franck Ribery and sometimes even Eden Hazard can struggle.

While the Robben type winger is a spear point, Ribery and Hazard are more of the handle. They’re not the one puncturing the defense, but without them the spear doesn’t fly. The more playmaking winger is more reliant on his teammates. Their ability to pass only magnifies their game. They can still be match winners on their own, but they aren’t required to be. There’s nothing individualistic about their existence. They’re using their teammates to feed passes to and to play off of and create space. Their dribbles and shots are calculated by how their teammates are positioned. You get out of the spear-points way when they have a full head of steam, you run with the handle and be ready for whatever they may do.

Raheem Sterling definitely fits in the handle category. The new Manchester City signing hasn’t fully developed a finishing shot of the quality of the rest of his game. However, he dribbles at a high level, creates chances, feeds excellent crossing passes, and can on occasion shoot with success. There’s not a lot individualistic about his game, but that’s not to say he’s not a fine player for his age. He just relies on his teammates more than a Gareth Bale. It’s not a knock on his quality of a player, more an observation on the qualities he brings to the table.

The issue this creates, however, is the fact these players are hard to judge when they’re on less than world class squads. Franck Ribery is a fine example. For most of his career, it was common knowledge how good Ribery was, yet it wasn’t clear he was potentially “third best player in the world” good until he was on the Bayern Munich squad that won the Champions League. It wasn’t prevalent on Galatasaray, and he only developed some parts of his game at Marseille. Even further he was far from a big name on Bayern until the squad improved around him (when they brought in Robben to spear point the attack).

Eden Hazard has seen some of these same issues to a lesser extent. Hazard has had a pretty nice living in club football, going from a strong Lille side to Chelsea. Yet his ability has been questioned playing for Belgium, where he seemingly is unable to take control of a match and grab a win.

Raheem carries similar burdens, and those showed through at Liverpool. Sterling’s first full season as a Red went as smoothly as can be. He was one of the less important players in the first XI, and flourished due to lack of responsibility. While that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, for a 19-year-old it’s a great environment to develop.

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Stats courtesy of Squawka

The following season, Sterling played without Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge was hurt most of the season, and Steven Gerrard rapidly regressed.  Furthermore, Coutinho had a run of poor form until after Christmas. The attack around him crumbled like a collapsing monolith. Yet the winger didn’t fold. Instead he went into January with the second most chances created in the EPL (behind Eden Hazard) and ahead of the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, even though both world class players were completely on fire. Yet Sterling’s efforts went largely unnoticed.

On his own, Sterling isn’t a match winner. Or at least he’s not one yet. He doesn’t score a large amount of goals off amazing individual runs. He doesn’t have to though, as it’s clearly not his game. Because of this, he can’t shine through on a barren attack, which Liverpool’s clearly was.

Despite outpacing world class talents, Raheem’s current narrative is that he regressed last season. That seems completely wrong: he took on an entire offense and tried to make it work on a club that often has unreasonable expectations. He showed an ability and composure many 20-year-olds wouldn’t in that situation.

Yet, he didn’t have match saving goals. Then his manager started sending him messages by playing him at wing-back. Then there were the pictures of him with the shisha pipe and the contract tussle. Whether Sterling should have taken a different approach with his contract is neither here nor there. But it’s a bit confusing to say he wasn’t more impressive last year.

Sterling may not have been able to make the sinking Liverpool ship float, but with another year of maturity and experience behind him – and a better supporting cast – it shouldn’t be surprising if Sterling takes a big leap forward next season. Sergio Aguero has a better nose for those final balls than any player on Liverpool, and Raheem knows how to deliver them.

Raheem Sterling’s contributions weren’t enough to salvage and save what was a poor offensive squad last season. What they could do, however, is turn a good attack that stalled at times last season into a devastating one.

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